Yesterday, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham ordered the state’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery to close at noon on Tuesday, June 1st. The move aims to avoid entangling endangered humpback whales that are now migrating along California’s coastline. The season typically ends June 30th in Central California and July 15th in Northern California.
The closure order was based on data from the state’s new Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program, which was developed in line with a legal agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center previously sued the department in 2017 over increasing whale entanglements.
The department’s assessment reported that, on May 12th, 60 humpback whales were seen in Monterey Bay in Central California. Over the next two days, 45 humpback whales were reportedly witnessed swimming in Northern California. These numbers are expected to increase in the coming weeks as whales continue to migrate to feed off California’s coast. The department’s report also indicated that thousands upon thousands of crab traps are still in the water, putting whales at risk of entanglement.
The Center had been urging Bonham to close the fishery earlier than June 1st, calling on him to only allow the use of ropeless or “pop-up” fishing gear. This innovative gear uses lift bags or remotely released lines and buoys to bring crab traps to the surface, eliminating ropes running through the water for days or weeks.
“It’s good to see California finally acting to avoid whale entanglements. But we’re disappointed that state officials were so slow to take meaningful action and haven’t acted on the promise of ropeless gear,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center, said in a statement. “Whales will always be threatened by a fishery with thousands of heavy vertical ropes in the water all season. We’ve been pushing for a conversion to ropeless gear, which the state’s fish and wildlife department should embrace more than it has.”
Tragically, entanglements in thick ropes connected to heavy commercial Dungeness crab traps injure and kill whales and sea turtles. The ropes cut into the animals’ flesh, weakens their strength, and results in their drowning. Each entanglement of a humpback whale, blue whale, or leatherback sea turtle violates the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Center co-sponsored this year’s Whale Entanglement Prevention Act (AB 534), which would have mandated the conversion of California’s trap fisheries to ropeless gear by the end of 2025. The Bill was subsequently pulled by its author, former Assemblymember Rob Bonta, when he was appointed as the state’s new attorney general. The Center, however, remains committed to advocating for the change to ropeless gear.
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